Safechuck v. MJJ Prods., Inc.

Decision Date03 January 2020
Docket NumberB288036,B284613
Citation43 Cal.App.5th 1094,257 Cal.Rptr.3d 229
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
Parties James SAFECHUCK, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. MJJ PRODUCTIONS, INC., et al., Defendant and Respondent. Wade Robson, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. MJJ Productions, Inc., et al., Defendant and Respondent.

Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, John C. Manly, Vince W. Finaldi, Irvine, Alexander E. Cunny ; Esner, Chang & Boyer, Holly N. Boyer, Pasadena, and Steffi A. Jose, Los Angeles, for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert, Howard L. Weitzman, Jonathan P. Steinsapir, Aaron C. Liskin, Katherine T. Kleindienst, Santa Monica; Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland and Alana H. Rotter, Los Angeles, for Defendants and Respondents.

BIGELOW, P. J.

These appeals involve allegations of a disturbing, years-long pattern of child sexual abuse by international superstar Michael Jackson. The truth of those allegations is not at issue here. Instead, we must decide whether plaintiffs Wade Robson and James Safechuck waited too long to sue, not Jackson himself (who died over a decade ago), but two of Jackson’s corporations, MJJ Productions, Inc. and MJJ Ventures, Inc., for their involvement in Jackson’s alleged abuse of Robson and Safechuck.

This timeliness issue had been litigated under a prior version of Code of Civil Procedure section 340.1 ( section 340.1 ) that required claims of childhood sexual abuse against third-party nonperpetrators to be filed by a victim’s 26th birthday unless the claims fell within a narrow exception. Robson and Safechuck sued after their 26th birthdays, and the trial court concluded their claims were untimely because they did not fall within this exception. Effective January 1, 2020, however, section 340.1 was amended to allow a victim to bring claims of childhood sexual assault against third-party nonperpetrators until the victim’s 40th birthday. ( § 340.1, as amended by Stats 2019, Ch. 861, § 1.) Safechuck and Robson both sued before their 40th birthdays, and the corporations do not dispute the revised statute applies to their nonfinal cases. We reverse the judgments in the corporations’ favor and remand for further proceedings. We decline to address any other issues.

BACKGROUND

Robson has appealed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the corporations, while Safechuck has appealed judgment after the sustaining of a demurrer. Both cases present the same basic legal question involving the timeliness of their claims, so we have consolidated their appeals for the purposes of this opinion.1

Robson’s Case

Robson was born in 1982 in Australia. Robson claims that starting in 1990 and continuing over the next seven years until he was 14, Jackson sexually molested him. According to Robson, the abuse involved fondling, kissing, giving and receiving oral sex, and one incident during which Jackson attempted to engage in anal sex with him. During the years of abuse, Jackson instructed Robson not to tell anyone about the sexual acts between them.

Jackson died on June 25, 2009. Robson filed the instant lawsuit in May 2013, when he was 30 years old. As of the operative fourth amended complaint, he named Jackson’s corporations MJJ Productions, Inc. and MJJ Ventures, Inc. as third-party nonperpetrator defendants. MJJ Productions was formed in 1979 as one of Jackson’s "loan-out corporations" furnishing his services as an artist. MJJ Ventures was formed in 1991 to hold Jackson’s interest in a joint venture between him and his recording label, which exploits various artists’ sound recordings. Robson’s complaint alleged claims against the corporations for (1) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (2) negligence; (3) negligent supervision; (4) negligent retention/hiring; (5) negligent failure to warn, train, or educate; and (6) breach of fiduciary duty.

The corporations moved for summary judgment on statute of limitations grounds pursuant to the version of section 340.1 then in effect. The trial court granted the motion because Robson filed his claims after his 26th birthday and they did not fall within the narrow exception extending the time to file claims against third-party nonperpetrators.

Safechuck’s Case

Safechuck was born in 1978. He met Jackson in late 1986 or early 1987 while working on a commercial featuring Jackson. In 1988, 10-year-old Safechuck and his mother spent six months with Jackson on tour. Safechuck alleged that during the tour and continuing through 1992, Jackson abused him hundreds of times. According to Safechuck, Jackson kissed Safechuck’s genitals, had Safechuck rub and suck Jackson’s nipples as he masturbated, had Safechuck "bend over on all fours and then [Jackson] would grab [Safechuck’s] butt cheeks and spread them open with one hand, and masturbate himself with the other," and inserted his finger into Safechuck’s anus on two occasions. Jackson instructed Safechuck never to tell anyone about the abuse and deny the abuse if asked.

Safechuck filed his original complaint on May 9, 2014, when he was 36 years old. In his operative third amended complaint, Safechuck alleged the same claims against the third-party corporations as Robson, namely (1) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (2) negligence; (3) negligent supervision; (4) negligent retention/hiring; (5) negligent failure to warn, train, or educate; and (6) breach of fiduciary duty.

The corporations demurred to the complaint. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend for the same reasons it granted summary judgment against Robson—the claims were time-barred and did not fall within the exception to the age 26 cutoff for third-party nonperpetrator claims contained in section 340.1 then in effect.

DISCUSSION

When plaintiffs filed their lawsuits, section 340.1 set age 26 as the cut off for filing claims of childhood sexual abuse against third-party nonperpetrator defendants like the corporations here. (Former § 340.1, subd. (b)(1), eff. until Dec. 31, 2019.) In the prior version of the statute, a narrow exception permitted third-party claims to be filed beyond age 26 but within three years of discovery if a defendant "knew or had reason to know, or was otherwise on notice, of any unlawful sexual conduct by an employee, volunteer, representative, or agent, and failed to take reasonable steps, and to implement reasonable safeguards, to avoid acts of unlawful sexual conduct in the future by that person, including, but not limited to, preventing or avoiding placement of that person in a function or environment in which contact with children is an inherent part of that function or environment." (Former § 340.1, subd. (b)(2), eff. until Dec. 31, 2019.) Plaintiffs filed their lawsuits after their 26th birthdays, so their claims against the corporations were only timely if they fell within this provision. The trial court granted judgment for the corporations in both cases, concluding their claims did not.

Effective January 1, 2020, Senate Bill 218 amended section 340.1 to extend the time for victims to bring claims of childhood sexual assault2 against third-party nonperpetrators from age 26 to age 40.

( § 340.1, subd. (a)(2)(3).)3 The revised statute retained the exception to this limitation period for third-party claims and allowed those claims to be filed within five years of discovery if the defendant "knew or had reason to know, or was otherwise on notice, of any misconduct that creates a risk of childhood sexual assault by an employee, volunteer, representative, or agent, or the person or entity failed to take reasonable steps or to implement reasonable safeguards to avoid acts of childhood sexual assault." ( § 340.1, subd. (c).)

Robson and Safechuck filed their lawsuits before their 40th birthdays, so their claims against the third-party corporations would have been timely under the revised statute without the need to resort to the exception contained in section 340.1, subdivision (c). The only question is whether the newly extended limitations period applies to plaintiffs’ claims. The corporations do not dispute these revisions apply to plaintiffs’ nonfinal cases still pending on appeal, rendering their claims timely. We agree and find their dispute under the previous statutory provisions to be moot.

Generally, for claims that have not expired under a former limitations period, "an enlarged limitations period ordinarily applies and is said to apply prospectively to govern cases that are pending when, or instituted after, the enactment took effect." ( Quarry v. Doe I (2012) 53 Cal.4th 945, 956, 139 Cal.Rptr.3d 3, 272 P.3d 977.) For claims that have lapsed under the former limitations period, "revival of the claim is seen as a retroactive application of the law under an enlarged statute of limitations. Lapsed claims will not be considered revived without express language of revival." ( Id. at p. 957, 139 Cal.Rptr.3d 3, 272 P.3d 977 ; see id. at p. 980, 139 Cal.Rptr.3d 3, 272 P.3d 977 ["[O]rdinarily the Legislature has authority to enlarge limitations periods even as to lapsed claims, as long as it...

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